Editor’s note: Jim Roberts is Executive Director, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

WILMINGTON, N.C. - One of the first things I wanted to bring to Wilmington when recruited to run the new Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at UNC Wilmington was the eagerness to compete. In a very pro-business state like North Carolina, it is difficult for a small coastal city to compete with the larger powerhouse economies of Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and craft beer city Asheville.

That competitive spirit led to the CIE competing for a nationwide contest for $50,000 from the Small Business Administration for accelerators OUTSIDE of Silicon Valley. When you think of successful accelerators, you probably think of Tech Stars, Y Combinator and even the American Underground.

Our first event at the CIE even before we opened the doors was to invite NC IDEA to explain their grant cycle for the potential $50,000 grant. I needed to know if the Wilmington entrepreneurs wanted to compete and if they were competitive. While none of the 19 applicants from Wilmington won the grant from NC IDEA, our companies are now competing and learning that business is not a democracy but a meritocracy.

We have a unique challenge as we are trying to evolve a tourism destination at the coast into an inclusive innovation economy to retain our college graduates. As we make some noise at the coast, we begin to build that corridor to the Raleigh Durham region where our UNCW graduates having been migrating to for jobs for at least 50 years. Our graduates and alumni are beginning to pay attention to our entrepreneurship center much like the sea turtles that want to return home to the coast much more than being stuck in traffic on I-40/I-540. Much like the winning reputation of UNC Chapel Hill and Duke to attract basketball talent, we need a few startups to have exit events (wins) to keep our bright talent in the region and to recruit talent to the region.

Wait, What? We Won? We are Going Where? The White House?

We learned in early September that we were one of the winners of the grant awards and that there would be a small ceremony in Washington DC. We had SBA executive Nagesh Rao in Wilmington for our Sept. 4th Coastal Connect Entrepreneur and Capital Conference to talk about the importance of SBIR grants and technology transfer in the development of an innovation economy. We all took a second look when we received the email invite from the White House. In fact, many cities called the SBA to confirm this was real and in fact that is when it became VERY real.

The first event hosted by Global Accelerator Network started in a new development for technology entrepreneurs in Washington DC called the Disruption Corporation in Crystal City in Arlington, VA. This development is a John Daly driver from Reagan Airport with a view of the airport activity and waterfront. This is another example of a real estate industry leader investing in neglected office space to attract startups that will one day become major employers.

We met the other accelerator winners and leaders from 31 states and our friends in Puerto Rico. This was not a democratic process by having 50 winners from 50 states. In fact the other winner from North Carolina was from Charlotte with RevTech Labs and City Labs from the Packard Place. CIE was only one of nine new accelerators to win while other winners were accelerators for minorities, rural or manufacturing in disadvantaged regions throughout the country. Our submission included our new Open Device Lab called CORAL, our need to implement a formal boot camp curriculum in the accelerator, a partnership with the new Elite Innovations Makerspace and a need to expand the facility as we already have 29 companies.

Superman has landed in DC

Tech industry rockstar Paul Singh, formerly of 500 startups, took the stage and explained Disruption Corporation and Crystal Tech Fund ($50 million) and made us all think bigger. After 9-11, and a military BRAC closing, the Crystal City region around Reagan airport was a ghost town of corporate and defense contractor infrastructure. Sound familiar to the tobacco infrastructure in Durham? DC really has all of the pieces for a tech cluster, talent, capital and infrastructure but he is now instilling the entrepreneurial spirit to the region used to government contracting.

I first met Paul at the Paradoxos Event in Downtown Durham when I brought 5 entrepreneurs from Wilmington in my first week on this job to see what we were going to try to build at the coast. Paul has a passion and interesting insight into the Southeastern US as an untapped source of capital and talent. (Paul is a friend of Startup Factory leader Chris Heivly.)

Paul mentioned he was paying attention to capital efforts in Tennessee and development efforts in Las Vegas. Former NBC Raleigh anchor Brooke Salkoff now works for Disruption Corporation as well as running her own day camp web site, CampEasy.com. She shared the stage with me and Revolution Ventures on a panel at the Internet Summit last week as she was invited by our friends at Bull City Ventures, including Wilmington native David Jones.

Note to Self: Don’t Jump the Gate as if I Could

The next morning, I was so excited to go to the White House, I was two hours early so I met for coffee with one of my original clients from the Asheville market Trevor Lohrbeer of Lab Escape, a data visualization solution. Trevor has always been the most expressive of his gratitude and appreciation for entrepreneur development infrastructure and training after a “tough love” session about an idea that was not going to work.

After a short wait, I got past the multiple security desks, not by jumping the gate as many of my stranger friends suggested on social media, who had forgotten about my knee surgery in high school that eliminated my small vertical leaping abilities.

We were greeted by short speeches by high level economic development officials, some who had been entrepreneurs before, and the Administrator of the Small Business Administration Maria Contreras-Sweet. She told her story of being an immigrant and a story about when her grandmother dreamed of her making it as a corporate secretary in the US. She is now a Secretary in the Cabinet of the US President. She told us how proud she was of our accelerators and told impressive story of some of the applicants.

The next panel was made up of leaders from a variety of organizations such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and even the Deputy of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. When they asked the audience to tell them what they were doing right, what were they doing wrong and what they were not paying attention to, I was first to put up my hand to say they were not paying attention to helping the entrepreneurs understand the needs of large employers as potential prospects and clients.

I described our Aspirin event that we had in the spring where we had the five largest employers of Wilmington region to explain their five biggest pain points where they needed a solution. Five large employers describing five big needs created twenty – five opportunities for the entrepreneurs to start with a big client. The other accelerator leaders really liked this event idea and I learned about similar events in Los Angeles called Wish List and somewhere else called Red Clay. They also laughed a bit about my strategy to pluck some individual aggressive and optimistic angels out of conservative angel investor groups to avoid negative group think mentality that is becoming a virus.

To Win the Election , You Have to Put Yourself on the Ballot

As I explained earlier, I have been pushing our entrepreneurs to compete for NC IDEA, Innovation Fund of North Carolina, competing for awards with NC Tech Association and stage time at venture conferences such as CED and Internet Summit. We are now even having our own internal competition to win 5 free badges to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival that were donated by our new friend Hugh Forest, Executive director of SxSWi when he visited Wilmington in September.

Our entrepreneurs are now competing and winning with an impressive showing at CED Tech venture this year with five companies selected. Wilmington had three of the top ten startups in North Carolina this year according to the North Carolina Technology Association. And our startups have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Xconomy in just the last two weeks. NextGlass.co will make a national splash with their launch this week.

I finally followed my own advice about competing for the win for our own accelerator and we won to represent Wilmington and North Carolina! This win gave us a sense of validation of our hard work and that we are on the right track to make you think of Wilmington on #TheOther4Days of the week! Not just for weekends!